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Bonsai, which literally means “plantings in a tray,” doesn’t sound impressive – until you see a small, 30 centimeter tree in a small ceramic dish. Then as you admire it, you find out that this tiny tree – which looks like a 100-year-old tree, standing stately – actually is a 100-year-old tree.

In addition to being perhaps the most widely-practiced Japanese art on the planet – there are more than 1,500 bonsai societies in 90 countries, and hundreds of books and magazines have been published on the subject in dozens of languages – the art of bonsai may also be the most quintessentially Japanese.

Bonsai combines all the fundamental Japanese sensibilities into one art form: the love of nature combines with the deep attention to form, the fascination with asymmetry comes into harmony with the concept of wabi-sabi, and the reverence for life – and the joy in its tending – itself becomes subject to the artist’s painstaking manipulation. The Japanese desire to improve on nature, and yet to hide any trace of those improvements, finds its fullest expression in bonsai.

Like many Japanese arts, bonsai goes back more than a thousand years, and as in most things, was influenced by the Chinese, whose art of penjing did much of what bonsai does. Although there is evidence of bonsai as far back as 1200 CE, the art grew popular during the Edo period, under the rule of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, who loved the art of what was then called hachi-no-ki, and practiced it himself.

One bonsai that the Shogun created more than 400 years ago still lives in the collection of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Bonsai is the very ideal of enduring, not to mention living, art.

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Bonsai are created from various plant sources, and depending on the source, they undergo a great many different techniques to become bonsai. Some are grown from cuttings of a favorite plant, others are small trees that have been found in nature, or in a garden, and deemed worthy of the time required to turn it into a bonsai.

Many species respond well to this patient, painstaking treatment. Favorites include Japanese natives that have been cultivated in gardens for centuries: Juniper, Japanese maple, birch, magnolia, various pines, dwarf pomegranate, Chinese elm and even oak trees are staples of Japanese gardens, and are frequently turned into bonsai.

The goal of creating a proper bonsai is to manage the growth of a small plant so that, over the course of many years, it becomes a mature tree that has the look and proportions of a full-grown tree, but has maintained its small size. The techniques employed to do this are many, time-consuming and intricate.

Leaf-trimming manages the size and distribution of the leaves; careful pruning of the trunks, branches and, especially, the roots of the tree to control its growth; and the wiring of branches forces them to grow in a particular fashion to achieve the desired effect. As with most works of art, most bonsai are meant to be seen only from the front, so all trimming and cutting aims to create an illusion of fullness – but only as seen from one side.

Attention is also paid to the texture of the bark, which ideally will develop the rougher, aged bark of a mature tree. Likewise, higher branches are pruned to keep them smaller at the top, and thicker at the lower reaches, so that as the trunk tapers, the optical illusion created is of a much taller, correctly proportioned tree, with the same sense of mass and gravity as a full-sized tree.

In this way, bonsai are shaped into a variety of established forms, whether it be the “formal upright” style or its slightly more “informal upright” variation, the “cascade” style in which plants bend part or even all the way over, “slant-style” plants that come out of the ground at an angle, trees whose roots wrap around a rock, or even the “forest” style, with several trees in one pot. Some trees even incorporate dead trunks to mimic the “snags” that are found in nature.

Whatever form is chosen, concerns for balance, asymmetry, the correct use of “empty space” between the branches and the sense of movement in the tree are all foremost in the artist’s mind.

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As in other forms of Japanese art, great care is given to create the illusion that this highly-manipulated form is actually completely natural; the artist’s hand, though it is clearly in charge of every aspect of the bonsai, must not appear to have been involved at all. The illusion of natural beauty must be total. That said, even the pot must be carefully chosen to “frame” the tree properly, just as a frame would be chosen for a painting. After all, this living art has the potential to literally outlive the person who created it.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON